“I learned long ago that if I go out somebody I’ve been wanting to see very badly is sure to come in. I’ve missed so many I’ve grieved about.”
The Gotham Book Mart (GBM) was an institution in literary New York for 87 years. Founded on West 45th Street in 1920 by Frances Steloff, the shop was frequented by writers such as Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, Arthur Miller, John Updike, J. D. Salinger and Eugene O’Neill, and its customers included a host of prominent New Yorkers —George and Ira Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, Alexander Calder, Stephen Spender, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, John Guare, Katharine Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to name only a few, as well as numerous high-profile visitors who would make sure to drop in when they were passing through town. At various points, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Tennessee Williams, and Patti Smith worked as clerks there. The shop also exhibited the works of the artist Edward Gorey and is credited with launching the artist’s career.
Steloff is credited with supporting the careers of major writers back when they were unknown or unaccepted, including James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Although censored, Steloff sold James Joyce’s Ulysses. She also sold D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover in the 1920’s and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer 1930’s, which led to lawsuits and landmark decisions on censorship.
Despite its renown, GBM was a very personal bookshop, as Steloff put her heart and soul into the store, working long hours and hand picking stock. A beloved figure, Steloff was also very exacting and an economizer, and many who worked for her did not or could not meet her high standards. She was also known to be extremely generous, sending money to writers needing to make rent or pay bills without any guarantee of repayment.
Steloff lived a childhood of abuse and poverty in Saratoga Springs and then Boston. She eventually made her way to New York City where she worked in a department store, starting in the corsets department and later moving on to the magazine subscriptions counter. Using the connections she made, she secured several clerk positions in bookstores, the last of which was Brentano’s, a major New York bookseller.
On her way to work, Steloff often passed Sunwise Turn on Thirty-Fifth Street. Founded by Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray Clarke in 1916, this bookshop specialized in quality publications, particularly fine art books. Taking Jenison and Mowbray as inspiration perhaps, Stelhoff took a chance and rented a 15 by 12 foot ground floor room with a window and named it Gotham Book & Art.
W G. Rogers, in his book Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart muses that it was Steloff’s difficult and deprived childhood that propelled her toward a successful life in bookselling:
…The Gotham Book Mart, sanctuary of the written word, did in fact originate in the unliterary vacationland of Saratoga Springs. A perceptive girl learned key lessons from hardships, developed a love for all living creatures, and grew up to have an irresistible passion for the very things she was deprived of: books and education. Given plenty of reading matter, books might never have become a necessity and she might not have felt driven to her long-sustained efforts. She was teased and tantalized into success. Young Steloff and books were donkey and carrot. (23-24)
Though a slow and an uphill climb at first—the store was open from 9 AM until midnight and Steloff alone performed all tasks, from cleaning to bookkeeping to clerking—she eventually cultivated a loyal clientele. Her very first customer was a Broadway idol of some note who was performing in a show in the theater next door. More theater people from the neighborhood began coming to her for books, as well as acquaintances from Brentano’s and other bookstores. No doubt Steloff exuded an air of determination and dedication that attracted her customers and made them want to return.
Steloff’s specializations came to her by chance: theater books because she was in such close proximity to so many theaters, and art because she once bid on a collection of hunting images, only to be given Japanese woodblock prints when she went to claim her purchase. Duped and dispirited and knowing nothing about Japanese art, she put the prints out for a dollar a piece with the hope of recouping her expenditure. It turned out, through the tips of collectors who bought pieces from her, that the prints were true collectors pieces and could fetch much more.
After a move to Forty-Seventh Street, a divorce, and a name change to Gotham Book Mart, Steloff’s shop began taking on its identity as a place that nurtured both writers and readers. She began stocking “Little Magazines” that printed artistic work that was not money-making for larges presses. She began her career in magazine sales, and she later supported them by displaying magazines in her shop’s window, buying magazine advertisement space, and listing the magazines in her catalogs. Rogers explains in Wise Men Fish Here:
As editor and writers commenced to urge the untried, untested, and often inscrutable avant-garde writings on GBM, it stocked more and more of them. The proprietor describes her role modestly: “Perhaps it would be more flattering to believe that we were prophets about the great new writers who were then emerging in these little reviews. But on the contrary I was led step by step by opportunities, and I simply responded to the needs and requests for an outlet.” Her customers were still educating her. (113)
Steloff went far beyond stocking obscure literary magazines to help authors. She often lent or even gave them money when they were in need. She cashed checks for them found them rides and places to stay and even once tried to begin a fund for poets to give money to those most in need but found that need greatly outweighed available funds.
Steloff became friendly with the writer Christopher Morley, who brought his friends Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller and W.S. “Bill” Hall to the shop where they turned the back yard of GBM into an art gallery and hangout. Although many of the great minds of New York spent time there, it was not an intellectual salon but more of a place to have fun with like-minded peers. Rogers explains:
It was good-fellows-get-together, laughter in the cloister, wit and fun spiced with learning. Some of the decade’s best minds relaxed in congenial company; they dashed off doggerel, quipped in ancients and modern languages, and recited limericks that were for reciting only, not for printing. (160)
In the mid-1940s, Steloff almost went out of business, but through Christopher Morley she was able to buy a building owned by Columbia University. After two decades at #51 she moved to #41 Forty-Seventh Street on the same block. She continued to be exacting and and frugal in the postwar era but fewer people were willing to earn a living on her terms anymore, hard work and low pay in exchange for the opportunity to be among books.
GBM’s stock was divided into three sections, new, secondhand, and rare. It also stocked magazines, regular and “little.” Steloff lived in an apartment above the store and was therefore able to continue to work long hours devoting herself to the bookstore. When Steloff turned 80, she finally decided to “retire.” She sold the shop to Andreas Brown, a devoted customer and book lover, in 1967 on the condition that she could continue living in the apartment above the shop for the rest of her life and work at the store. Frances Steloff died in New York in 1989 at the age of 101.
Steloff with Andreas Brown
A New York Magazine listing for GBM describes the shop in its later years under Brown:
Owner Andreas Brown and his flock of charming misanthropes are happy to help—or engage in fiery intellectual debate—when called upon, but they’re also just as content to read in a corner and leave browsing customers alone. (Sometimes, they don’t even look up when you walk in.) While the store stocks a little bit of everything, its specialty is 20th Century Arts and Literature, so if you need a signed play by Samuel Beckett or the complete works of James Joyce, you’re in the right place.
In 2007, GBM closed its doors for good. Brown, who had major financial difficulties, was forced to close the store, and its stock was sold in a general sale, its inventory going to The University of Pennsylvania Libraries after an anonymous donor purchased over 200,000 items worth millions of dollars and donated it to the library.
Gotham Book Mart was an icon in a particular tradition of bookselling in New York. Like the back room of Charles Wiley’s bookshop on Reade Street in the 1820’s, known as the “Den,” and Jenison and Mowbray Clarke’s Sunwise Turn, as well as Jeanette Watson’s Books & Co. and the 21st century Greenlight Books and McNally Jackson Bookstore, GBM was always more than just a store. To quote Rogers once again:
It is significant that she always refers to the Gotham Book Mart as a shop, not a store. Even more in the 1920s than now, there was a distinction. A store was for selling, a shop was for building and creating. She always did more than sell. If salesmanship has satisfied her, corsets would have, too. If selling just any book had satisfied her, she would have stayed on Vesey Street where she had earned more than she did now. (78)
Yes, Frances Steloff was a builder and creator and Gotham Book Mart was most certainly a shop in the true sense—a place where writer, reader, and proprietor harmoniously coexisted and commingled, a place where the written word came alive.
The history of the store is covered in the documentary film, Frances Steloff: Memoirs of a Bookseller, directed in 1987 by Deborah Dickson.
Rogers, W G. Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. Print.
Tannenbaum, Matthew. My Years at the Gotham Book Mart with Frances Stelloff, Proprietor. S.l.: Worthy Shorts, 2009. Print.